One thing I enjoy about writing that doesn't involve me actually writing is helping people progress along their journey. This can be something as simple as a critique of their work, suggesting a few good reads for examples of technique, or just talking about our individual processes. One thing I commonly do is offer constructive answers to the many questions from writers just starting out, and every now and then I notice a theme in the inquiries that come my way. The latest trend seems to be how much to write, so I think that's worth dedicating a little time to discussing.
The basic length of a work is defined by its word count. Not pages, not chapters - word count. And while there is no hard-and-fast, universally accepted standard, the categories break down kind of like this:
- Short story: up to 20,000 words
- Novella: 20,000-50,000 words
- Novel: 50,000+ words
- Too much: 250,000+ words
This is the structure part of writing. If you want to write the Great American Novel, it better be at least 50,000 words. The number and length of chapters is inconsequential. The important part is that when you set out to write something, those categories will tell you what you have written. If you finish the Great American Novel and realize it's only 40,000 words, you might have to accept the award for the Great American Novella instead.
Here's where we walk away from structure and embrace the writing side. When it comes to the length of a chapter, story, or whatever, the proper measure is what the words accomplish, not the space they take. Word count goes out the window, and we instead focus on how we want to pace our storytelling. This is now about rhythm, and that's an individual quality.
How long should a short story be? Long enough to present a situation, evolve it, and conclude it. This can be a few paragraphs, a couple of pages, or even a few sections of a longer piece. The point is that the length is determined by the storytelling. A chapter should present a segment of a longer piece, offer the reader information and story progression, and have an organic handoff to the next section. If this takes 100 words, then so be it. If it's 10,000 words, that's okay as well. The story dictates the size.
And lastly, 50,000 words can make a 300-page book if the font is a large enough point size, but it will look weird. Instead, set the target of telling a full and complete story, and let the words count and pages just fall into place. In the end, nobody will care about your word count but you.